The Science of Studying

Our partners at Breck are here to discuss the science of studying! Read about their tips and tricks you can use with your student to help them when they are preparing for their next big exam.

The Science of Studying | Twin Cities Moms Blog

With increasing demands from extracurricular activities, challenging academic classes, social outings, and – let’s face it – technology, finding time to study can seem next to impossible.

In order to use the time remaining the in the day most effectively, students today should utilize learning strategies to maximize the outcomes of their study sessions and retain new information longer.

Think back to your English class and those countless vocab words you learned. How did you study? Flashcards with the word on the front and the definition on the back? How about the sheet of notebook paper with the word on one side and the definition next to it, with the page folded over, hiding the answers? While these can be helpful study methods, they are often done ineffectively.

In this article, Breck’s Middle School Learning Strategist, Jay Rainville, delivers valuable study tips that are rooted in research from the field of Mind, Brain, and Education (a field that crosses neuroscience, psychology, and education and is at the heart of Breck’s Peter Clark Center for Mind, Brain, and Education).

The Science of Studying | Twin Cities Moms Blog

The Research

Alone or in a group? How should you study?

Rainville: There are benefits to studying independently and in a group. Group study is often more effective for older students since they are more likely to stay engaged and not just focus on social interaction. The interactive group dynamic, however, can make things more memorable and help things stick more effectively because the interactive dynamic may have a positive emotional charge (i.e. if there’s a joke that happens that helps students remember a term they are trying to study).

If students are studying solo, they control the environment and pace but it is important to bring someone else into their study routine at the end of the process to avoid the illusion of competency.

What is the illusion of competency? When students study, the information moves into their short-term memory. It can be easy for a student to review a term and think, “I’ve got this!” when really it hasn’t been aggregated into their long-term memory. A delayed, final review with someone else ensures that information is stored in the long-term memory. Groups, if done properly, can aid in retrieval practice and accountability for actually knowing.

When is the best time to study?

Rainville: There’s mixed research on when but the important thing to know is that a routine is what’s best. Even if a student comes home with no assigned homework, having study time built into their routine allows students to review other content and reflect on the day. Brains get used to routines and the longer that time is dedicated for that purpose, students will become more and more efficient.

Should my student be studying in a certain place?

Rainville: As with the time of day in which to study, there’s mixed research on location as well. I recommend that students study in a place that resembles the testing environment. You’re going to be tested on information—make your study environment as similar to that testing environment as possible. Some students might use music because studying may not be as engaging, but having silence while they study is going to help them really store information into their long-term memory. The important thing to note is that comfort is key. Too much comfort can equal complacency while too little can lead to mental stress/shut down.

The Science of Studying | Twin Cities Moms Blog

How can my student study more effectively?

Rainville: There are many strategies we can use to help students improve their study efforts. A few of them are outlined below.

Spacing: Studying should be spaced out over time. One long study session is not as effective as having three, ten to fifteen minute sessions over multiple days. That’s why creating a routine of daily study time is so important. When students block or “cram,” students retain information for a day, maybe two since the information falls away so quickly.

Interleaving: While it may seem ideal to focus on one term over and over again until “mastery,” the best way to learn is to mix it up. Studying multiple terms or concepts at once and actively switching between three to five is ideal because the brain has to process more deeply rather than just memorizing the one. Focusing on mastery of just one skill doesn’t allow our brain to identify when the skill needs to be used. Students aren’t looking at the problem and thinking, “What skill do I need to use in order to study this?” Interleaving forces our brains to process the type of question being asked on a deeper level. It is a more active and engaged form of study.

Active Recall: Active recall is a process of studying without being prompted for the answer using tools like practice tests or pretests. In this exercise, students should struggle to recall information, which ultimately strengthens that piece of information in their long-term memories.

Reframe Test Days: Research associated with the stereotype threat tells us that the way we approach tests and quizzes can have a serious impact on how well students perform. Students should reframe a test as a positive opportunity to show off what they’ve learned. Students may also want to mentally rehearse the day, imagining it going well and reminding themselves of what will happen.

Mirror the Testing Experience: This is an important strategy where students may need assistance. Too often, students are studying and quizzing each other orally. Are they going to be tested orally? If not, maybe they should think about making their study efforts resemble the testing experience.

Reciprocal Teaching: This is a really good strategy that asks the students to become the teacher. If students can effectively communicate how to do a process, they’ve got it down. But the trick is that they need to be able to describe it in a way that makes sense, and sometimes that is hard to do.

LINCS Strategy: LINCing is a vocabulary strategy that guides students through creating a mind map with terms. Students should:

  • Listen to the sound of the new term as they say it,
  • Identify the reminding word (think of a familiar word or phrase that sounds like the new term),
  • Note the LINCing story (use the reminding word to recall the LINCing Story about the term and think of how the story helps you think of what the new term means),
  • Create the LINCing picture in your mind (visualize the LINCing picture about the reminding word and think of how the picture helps you think of what the new term means),
  • And shape a sentence that contains the new term (make a sentence that uses the new term correctly).

The Science of Studying | Twin Cities Moms Blog

Extra Tips & Tricks

Encourage active self-quizzing: Take time to really struggle to retrieve the information.

Make flashcards more effective: Don’t just include the term and definition! Add antonyms, synonyms, hint words, “sounds like” words, or even a sentence with the word used accurately in a sentence.

Movement and Standing: Research suggests that some movement, like bouncing on a ball or standing while studying can improve executive functioning skills and working memory capabilities.

Aim to master: Go beyond thinking, “I’m good to go,” to really thinking about that information deeply, trying to draw connections to different terms or topics that they’re studying.

Pretesting: Even if the information is new, pretesting can prime the brain for what’s coming later.

Use it, but don’t then lose it: Even after the test has happened, review the information to keep it active in the brain (see “Spacing” strategy above).

Thinking about your thinking (Metacognition): Don’t just think about how well you did on a quiz or test, but also reflect on how your studying went. Consider using the “Stoplight Method” where you have three different rubber bands and students separate their notes between “I know it and have it down;” “I kind of know it;” and “I’ve never seen this before.” Directing your studying to the words you are struggling with makes study time more efficient.

Personal connections: The more students can make personal connections with what they are learning, the easier it is going to be to remember and recall it. Known as contextual learning, this process requires that students customize their own methods of learning.

Paper vs. Electronic: It depends. Research suggests that online methods need more repetitions to learn content than with paper flashcards. Conversely, research also suggests that electronic methods are more motivating for students. If you’re trying to decide what’s better, paper or electronic, the answer is: it depends.

So the next time you are preparing for a test or helping your child prepare for an upcoming exam, consider your approach. Strategies matter. Making strategies your own matters, too.

These strategies are taught to all Breck Middle School students through the MindWorks program. For more information on a Breck education, visit us online at

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